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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

I did always think that those who thought that England was too heavily built up had never been outside London, or at least outside any big city....
Learning a language is resolution for one in five Brits, survey says.

From The BBC

29 December 2017

Learning a language will be a new year's resolution for about one in five Britons in 2018, a survey suggests. About one in three said they intend to learn at least some key phrases. Spanish was the most popular language among 2,109 UK adults questioned by Populus for the British Council. "If we are to remain globally competitive post-Brexit, we need more people who can speak languages," said British Council schools advisor, Vicky Gough.

Of the representative sample of adults polled:

64% said they had always wanted to speak another language fluently
56% said they regretted never having made the effort to do so
58% agreed it was more important than ever for people in the UK to learn another language but only a third said they could currently hold a basic conversation in one
45% were embarrassed by their poor language skills.

In November, a British Council report identified Spanish, followed by Mandarin, French, Arabic and German, as being the most important language for Britons to master as Brexit approaches. The organisation warns that uptake of languages in schools continues to fall with official figures indicating a 7.3 percentage point fall in the number of pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland taking GCSE exams in languages in the past year. In Scotland, official figures show a similar falls in numbers taking French and German qualifications.

A report by MPs has estimated that poor language skills in the workforce costs the UK economy £50bn a year in lost export opportunities. Businesses struggle to fill posts that require language skills said the report from the All Party Parliamentary Group on modern languages. The MPs called for a national recovery programme to improve language skills. Ms Gough said the New Year was the perfect time for budding linguists to get started. "It is fantastic that many of us hope to brush up on our language skills in 2018," said Ms Gough. "The languages we are most keen to learn are some of the languages the UK needs most. But the country is still facing a languages deficit."

[I’m definitely not one for New Year’s Resolutions but I have been thinking of learning an alternate language for some time now. Presently, and most embarrassingly, I can only speak one language fairly fluently – my own. But at least when ‘abroad’ I do make some effort to at least be able to say ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank you’ in the language of where I’m staying. I can even, if pushed, hold a brief ‘conversation’ in French as long as we don’t discuss anything more than ordering a drink or asking directions. I’ve even successfully ordered something in Portuguese and managed to say thank you afterwards which I’m still impressed by. But anyway – I’m thinking Cantonese for 2018. Partially because there’s a Chinese contractor at work I can get to correct my undoubtedly poor pronunciation and, probably like everywhere else on the planet, my local university is drowning in Chinese students and you really can’t help bumping into them. I’ll probably give up after some easy words/phrases but you never know….. If my sister can learn conversational French (spending her summers at her property in France helps) and my brother can say a few words in various Eastern European languages to say hi to people at his gym I’m sure that I can shoot the breeze in Cantonese. We’ll see……] 

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Just Finished Reading: Songs of Innocence by Richard Aleas (FP: 2007)

Three years have passed since private detective John Blake tried to solve the mystery of his ex-girlfriends death. Both sickened and guilty by the effects the investigation had on those around him he has turned his back on the investigation game and has taken his life in another direction. Now working in a college administration programme he is at last happy with his life. He even has a sort of girlfriend – fellow student Dorothy Burke. He’s even come to terms with her other life as a private masseuse and has learned not to ask too many questions about her exclusive clients. But when she apparently commits suicide in her apartment John can’t leave the case alone. Without a forced entry it must have been someone she knew, it must have been someone on her client list who spent the time to destroy her paper records and delete her e-mail account before killing her. It’s not a long list and John has a few leads to go on. He’s not getting paid but he doesn’t care. He’s doing this for Dorothy and he won’t stop until he has the answers he wants. But as he delves deeper and deeper into the New York sex trade he realises that he’s moving in waters he can’t easily navigate. Did a sleaze king-pin have her killed for taking her business elsewhere? Did a client kill her to stop her talking or blackmailing him? Was it some kind of guilt trip gone wrong or something even darker? When John finally finds out he really wished he hadn’t. But someone’s going to pay….

After enjoying his first hard case crime novel I was looking forward to this one. Aleas has a good writing style that really reminds me of the 50’s Noir novelists I really like but brought up to date (although even 10 years is starting to make elements of the story seem dated). But there was something about this one that felt ‘off’ as if the author’s mind wasn’t completely on the case. It might be because he had already decided that he wasn’t writing another one (this was his last novel) so didn’t put his heart into it – although I might have simply been projecting that feeling onto the plotline. It’s difficult to say. The main character, Blake, is just the same – more jaded maybe, more lost – and the portrayal of the city is as Noir as ever. Likewise his characters are rounded believable people. The king-pin reminded me too much as a similar character in the previous novel but I forgave him that. The women were very well drawn and almost completely believable except (I couldn’t help thinking) for the English girl who came across as too much of a fabrication. Overall though this was a pretty good crime thriller. The content, being based in the sex industry, isn’t for the faint of heart and the ending is very dark and not a little twisted but still made complete sense. But despite having a fairly strong stomach for this sort of thing I still found the resolution to the case more than a little icky. If you still fancy this then be prepared to be disturbed by it.   

This is my last book review of 2017. I'll do a round up of the Best books of the Year on New Years Day. The following Monday I'll see about a Preview of the Year ahead.....

Monday, December 25, 2017

Snow Bunnies......!!!

Just Finished Reading: The Battle of the River Plate by Dudley Pope (FP: 1956)

With their experience of WW1 and their knowledge of Britain’s great vulnerability the German’s had a plan. In the last weeks of peace they would station a mixture of armed merchantmen and heavy warships across the globe to attack and disrupt Britain’s trade routes and, essentially, starve her out of the war. It was a good plan and the Royal Navy knew that with the world’s oceans to protect with far too few ships they would most certainly have a hard task countering it. What the Navy didn’t know was just how lucky they were. Ships take time to build even in a warlike economy. So when Hitler brought forward the start of WW2 the German Navy, planning for a war in the early to mid-1940’s wasn’t ready to enact their plan quite as anticipated. Their major units were still being completed so, they had to go with what they had. Britain meanwhile knew of the risks to her merchant marine and had planned accordingly. Even bore war had been declared the Navy was on patrol in the North Sea to shadow or, if required, prevent any German warships breaking out into the Atlantic. It was a difficult job – both diplomatically before any conflict had broken out and logistically with ships only now returning from the far flung Empire back into home waters. Just like their soon to be enemy they went with what they had. But, in this case, the Germans had beaten them to the punch and the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, one of the most modern fighting vessels in the world, had already escaped and was heading deep into Atlantic waters.

The Graf Spee’s orders were clear. Until hostilities had been declared she would stay away from the trade routes and disappear into the vastness of the oceans before being activated on her main mission – the destruction of all British and Allied shipping and the avoidance (as much as possible) of Allied combat vessels. With a range that included the Atlantic, Indian and possibly the Pacific oceans such avoidance wouldn’t present much of a problem. Even if a merchantman’s distress call was picked up and transmitted to the nearest combat unit it could still take days to reach the area where the transport was lost. It would be like looking for a glass needle in a haystack the size of Mt Everest. But the British Navy had to do something. So she set up a number of battle groups scattered across the world more in the hope than the expectation that one of them might be in the right place at the right time to destroy or at least fix the enemy in place long enough for other units to arrive. It was a long shot but it was the only one they had. Then war was declared and the attacks began. Over the next few months the Atlantic and Indian oceans resounded to the often unheard distress signals of ships under fire from an enemy warship. The British Admiralty back in London was frantic and could only watch as ships were reported missing or radio calls were relayed hours and sometimes days after the event leaving them none the wiser of where the enemy was or might strike next.

As the months passed and the first Christmas of the war approached the luck of the British changed for the better. Commodore Henry Harwood RN with his force of cruisers – HMS Exeter (Heavy) and HMS Ajax and Achilles (both Light) – had been trying to get into the head of his adversary and anticipate where he might strike next. Posting his force near the confluence of several vital trade routes in the South Atlantic he patiently waited for dawn on what was expected to be yet another uneventful day. As the sun came up and the sky turned a blazing blue one of the lookouts shouted that he could see smoke. Presumed to be a merchant ship one of the British warships was sent to investigate. Seconds later the truth was known just as the first 11 inch shells arrived ahead of the battleship they had been hunting. Seriously outgunned Commodore Harwood did what any self-respecting naval officer would have done in the same circumstances – he ordered the attack. Splitting into two forces – Exeter on one side and Ajax and Achilles on the other – in order to divide the enemy’s fire the three British ships closed to firing range. With much bigger guns the Graf Spee opened fire long before the 8 and 6 inch gunned cruisers could respond. Initially dividing her fire as the British had hoped the battleship the Graf Spee turned her guns on the greater threat – Exeter – and scored repeated hits on her quickly knocking out several of her turrets. Still firing but making smoke the crew of HMS Exeter watched as the light cruisers launched their attack from close range scoring a number of hits on the battleship. With all three ships now achieving hits – though with little apparent effect – Exeter was hit again and again until, with the final gun out of action she had to withdraw leaving the engagement to the two smaller ships. Then to everyone’s amazement the enemy battleship began making smoke and began heading away from the battleground. Following at a discreet distance Ajax and Achilles pondered their next move. Without the Exeter, now limping to the nearest British base on the Falkland Islands over a thousand miles away, they were completely outgunned even if they were in perfect condition which they were far from. The only option is to continue shadowing and call for help from any nearby British or French units in the vicinity. Unknown to the British units the German battleship, which had been hit a significant number of times by 8 and 6 inch shells, was more damaged than they realised. The captain was also under strict orders that the ships destruction or capture was absolutely forbidden. Unaware of the fact that the cruisers were alone and were not part of a much larger force near-by he felt that discretion was definitely the preferred option. But with urgent repairs needed and no German facilities in range he had little option but to enter the neutral port of Montevideo. It was here that the brilliant British plan came to fruition. 
The British really needed to prevent the Graf Spee from leaving Montevideo for at least a week to allow heavy units to arrive in the area to destroy her. But the rules of war only allowed belligerent vessels to stay a maximum of 72 hours for vital repairs. So the British played a double game – by demanding that the German ship leave no later than the legal limit whilst at the same time preventing just that. In a final twist of the knife a rumour was circulated that heavy British warships would be arriving imminently. What had actually arrived, as frantic repairs took place on the German ship, was the heavy cruiser HMS Cumberland. Still several days away, coming at their top speeds, was a battleship and aircraft carrier with their screening destroyers. If any action was to take place as the legal limit lapsed it would be between the battleship and the three cruisers – two of which were undergoing equally frantic repairs without the benefits of docking facilities. The captain of the Graf Spee was left with three alternatives – none of them good. He could try to sail to the more friendly Argentine port of Buenos Aires across the Plate estuary but with the risk of running aground in the mudflats, he could fight his way out of the estuary against an unknown and apparently growing force or he could scuttle the ship in international waters. After much deliberation with diplomats and his seniors in Germany this is exactly what he decided to do. Sailing with a skeleton crew he blew up his ship almost within sight of the British guns he could so easily have swept aside.

Just as Hitler had seen this was a huge propaganda victory for the British just months after the start of WW2 brought on by courage, luck and not a small amount of subterfuge. Immortalised in the 1956 movie ‘Battle of the River Plate’ starring John Gregson, Anthony Quayle and Peter Finch this has long been an iconic moment in British military history. It was also one of the first wargame battle I ‘fought’ on a table top in after school activities. With four of us playing (one per ship) it was a great exercise in co-operation and problem solving which probably got me into gaming in the first place. Although just a tad jingoistic at times – understandably from its publication date – this was a detailed, absorbing and at times fantastically exciting story of one of the most famous Royal navy battles of WW2. Two more to come… 

Merry Christmas.....! Come Look @ the Lights!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Cartoon Time.

Something to remember as we all overindulge......
Cost of global disasters 'jumps to $306bn in 2017'

From The BBC

21 December 2017

Disasters in 2017 caused losses of $306bn (£229bn), according to estimates from insurance giant Swiss Re. The figure represents a 63% jump from last year, and is well above the average of the past decade. The Americas was hardest hit, with hurricanes in the Caribbean and southern US, earthquakes in Mexico and wildfires in California. Despite the rise in the financial cost of disasters, there was no significant increase in the loss of lives. Swiss Re said more than 11,000 people died or went missing in disaster events in 2017, which is similar to 2016's figure.

A report by the firm's research arm Sigma found insured losses amounted to $136bn (£102bn) - more than double last year's total and the third highest on record. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria together caused insured losses of about $93bn (£70bn) according to the report. But Swiss Re said the insurance industry had demonstrated that it could cope very well with such high losses, despite gaps in protection remaining. "If the industry is able to extend its reach, many more people and businesses can become better equipped to withstand the fallout from disaster events", said Martin Bertogg, head of catastrophe perils at Swiss Re.

[This seems to be pretty much in line with expectations especially from the continued fallout from the effects of Global Climate Change. It has been long (and confidently) predicted that as the world warms up we’ll get more extreme weather events – floods, droughts etc – more often. Not only that but, on average, the events themselves will become more extreme causing more damage and putting more people’s lives at risk. The recent hurricane season is a good example of that and will, hopefully, come as a wake-up call to those still denying Climate Change itself and the extent to which human activity is driving it. Being the cynic and sceptic that I am I expect it’ll need to get a good deal worse before people wake up and see things how they really are rather than how they’d like them to be. But at least I can hope – it’s almost Christmas afterall……] 

Thursday, December 21, 2017

That 'List' he's keeping must be pretty long by now............ 128 names to be precise........... [lol] What a maroon that man is!

It's the shortest day......! LONGER days ahead!!! HUZZAH.....

Just Finished Reading: A Universe from Nothing – Why is there Something rather than Nothing by Lawrence M Krauss (FP: 2012)

I have always believed that the Universe is a natural phenomenon which came into existence, through completely natural processes, some 13.7 billion years ago. Over the years I have, occasionally, dabbled in the science of such things to flesh out my belief with some facts. This book was another part of the effort to get my head around the whole thing. Whilst not completely effective – much more my fault than the authors – I am now a little closer to my goal of appreciating the science behind the existence of the Universe if not exactly fully understanding it. I am the first to admit that I am not a scientist. My formal education over the years has, by and large, been in the Humanities and that’s where I feel most at home. However I have developed, mostly through reading and some excellent TV documentaries a deepening interest in biological Evolution, Cosmology and Quantum Mechanics. This book brought together two of those subjects – Cosmology & QM.

Most of us have by now heard of Dark Matter. It is an idea conceived to explain why the Universe is behaving in the way it does. Essentially, according to present theories, there isn’t enough visible matter in the Universe to explain why it’s continuing to expand after the Big Bang and looks like it’ll expand forever so not Big Crunch when it all comes back. But weirdly (and to be honest most of the ideas discussed in this book can easily be labelled ‘weird’) not only is the Universe continuing to expand but the expansion is actually accelerating. Yes, that’s right. Accelerating. Pretty soon – in cosmic terms – we’ll no longer to be able to see the furthest galaxies and stars because they’ll be accelerating away from our area of space faster than the speed of light. Told you it was weird… The cause, the driving force of this expansion? More weirdness – Dark Energy. All space – even the empty space between stars and between galaxies is literally frothing with energy at a quantum level. Not only that, at intervals too small to measure, things like electrons spontaneously pop into existence and just as quickly pop out again and this is happening all the time. Going a little deeper down the rabbit hole it’s not only matter that seemingly spontaneously generates itself – its space too in the form of a rapid expansion. Mostly this occurs in vanishing small timeframes followed by an equally rapid deflation. But sometimes the expansion goes on into measurable time periods – like 13.7 billion years. Yes, just like our Universe and, it seems, like others too. Weird enough yet? Because there’s just one more thing – not only do the observations of our Universe say that spontaneous generation of entire Universes could happen or even do happen but, as far as the observations seem to be indicating and backed up by very sophisticated and verified mathematics, that this sort of thing *has* to happen and is happening right now. Because of the nature of QM exhibited in Dark Energy entire Universes are coming into existence in other parts of our Universe, in effect ‘budding off’ multiple Universes that, given the right physical constraints may well be very similar to this one. OK, that’s weird enough I think.

Although some of this book clearly flew over my head – I did struggle at times to work my way through the logic of it all – I did ‘get’ enough of it to appreciate how far our understanding of Universe creation has come since the idea of the Big Bang first made scientific headlines. Clearly I need to keep reading about both QM and Cosmology to get my head around the difficult stuff so there will be more in both areas (and, naturally, in Evolution too) to come. I seriously doubt that I’ll ever understand the maths behind any of this and I’ll probably never understand the intricacies of QM (I mean, who does?) but I do hope that I’ll be able to deepen (and widen?) my appreciation of both subjects so I at least get the gist of what they’re talking about. Recommended if you fancy something weird, cool and reasonably difficult to get you head around.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Iceberg..... Dead Ahead....!!

Just Finished Reading: The Shallows – How the Internet is changing the way we think, read and remember by Nicolas Carr (FP: 2010)

Do you find it difficult to concentrate these days? Is your memory worse than it’s ever been? Sleeping badly? On edge as is waiting for something? Have you given up reading anything longer than a page (or possibly two) of text before you need to do something, anything, else? If so, you’re not alone. Millions of people across the world feel the same – the cause? According to the author the cause is right in front of you right now, as you’re reading this. It’s the Internet.

It’s been talked about a lot. Unplugging, switching off your phone at night, not checking your work e-mails when on holiday or over the weekend but most of us can’t resist. You see people walking around with their phones clutched in their hands as if their lives depended on it. They seem, at least from afar, that they’re addicted and, to an extent, it seems that’s exactly what they are. It’s because our brains are so plastic. They response to their environment and, at a cellular level, redesign themselves to maximise our adaptability to increase our chances of survival and success. So stimulate the brain with lots of short term, instant response, high flow information and it will literally rewire itself to maximise throughput. So when an e–mail arrives, followed by another one, followed by a tweet, followed by a Facebook status alert, followed by a text, followed by an actual voice call in quick succession (or even at the same time) we can instantly switch between them. You must have seen teens effortlessly thumb messages on their phones whilst holding a conversation with music on their headphones and three other things and wonder: How can they do that? Years (or even scant months) of training and very plastic brains. The reason they can do it and you can’t (possibly) is that they literally have different brains so they can cope with it. They are wired to thrive in an information overloaded environment. So, that’s a good thing yes? We live in an age of information and the people who will be living in it longer are already thriving? That must be a good thing, right?

Not according to the author – because when something is gained, and especially when it’s gained by rewiring the brain itself, something is lost. That something is the ability to think deeply about subjects, the ability to concentrate long enough on a subject to understand it more that superficially, to hold opinions based on evidence and to make persuasive arguments backed up with detailed analysis. All the skills, indeed, that the world is more in desperate need of than ever before. What we have instead is a world increasing populated by people who are bored by facts, who have no knowledge of or interest in history, philosophy, science or much else beyond the latest celebrity tweet or YouTube sensation of the moment. Natural multi-tasking at the micro level has taken the place of deep thought about big subjects. Backed up by numerous studies from the worlds of Anthropology, Psychology, Sociology and Neurophysiology this is an eye-opening study explain why so many people seem to be distracted most of the time – because they are and it’s changing people’s brains to allow them to cope with it. This is not a good thing. We are naturally adapting well to an artificial environment and storing up problems for ourselves in the future – both as individuals and societies. So if you find yourself unable to concentrate on a book after more than a few pages maybe it’s a warning that you need to unplug from time to time. Stop checking your e-mails ten times a day, Kill those Twitter alerts, ditch Facebook and learn how to concentrate again. Definitely a recommended read for anyone concerned about the effects our technology is having on us and our kids. Much more to come on this important subject. 

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Schools warned over hackable heating systems

By Leo Kelion, BBC Technology desk editor

15 December 2017

Dozens of British schools' heating systems have been found to be vulnerable to hackers, according to a probe by a security research firm. Pen Test Partners says the problem was caused by the equipment's controllers being connected to the wider internet, against the manufacturer's guidelines. It says it would be relatively easy for mischief-makers to switch off the heaters from afar. But an easy fix, pulling out the network cables, can address the threat. Even so, the company suggests the discovery highlights that building management systems are often installed by electricians and engineers that need to know more about cyber-security. "It would be really easy for someone with basic computer skills to have switched off a school's heating system - it's a matter of clicks and some simple typing," Pen Test's founder Ken Munro told the BBC. "It's a reflection of the current state of internet-of-things security. Installers need to up their game, but manufacturers must also do more to make their systems foolproof so they can't be set up this way."

The cyber-security company made its discovery by looking for building management system controllers made by Trend Control Systems via the internet of things (IoT) search tool Shodan. It knew that a model, released in 2003, could be compromised when exposed directly to the net, even if it was running the latest firmware. Mr Munro said it had taken him less than 10 seconds to find more than 1,000 examples. In addition to the schools, he said he had seen cases involving retailers, government offices, businesses and military bases. Pen Test blogged about its findings earlier in the week, but the BBC delayed reporting the issue until it had contacted and alerted all of the schools that could be identified by name. West Sussex-based Trend Control Systems advises its customers to use skilled IT workers to avoid the problem.

But it responded to criticism that it could have done more to check its kit had been properly installed after the fact. "Trend takes cyber-security seriously and regularly communicates with customers to make devices and connections as secure as possible," said spokesman Trent Perrotto. "This includes the importance of configuring systems behind a firewall or virtual private network, and ensuring systems have the latest firmware and other security updates to mitigate the risk of unauthorised access." He added, however, that the company would "assess and test the effectiveness" of its current practices. One independent security researcher played down the threat to those still exposed, but added that the case raised issues that should be addressed. "The risk is limited because criminals have little incentive to carry out such attacks, and even if they did it should be possible for building managers to notice what is happening and manually override," said Dr Steven Murdoch, from University College London. "However, these problems do show the potential for far more dangerous scenarios in the future, as more devices get connected to the internet, whose failure might be harder to recover from. And we still need manufacturers to design secure equipment, because even if a device is not directly connected to the internet, there almost certainly is an indirect way in."

[Just when you thought you’d heard it all along comes ‘hackable heating systems’. Of course it plays strongly to one of my hobby horses (two actually) of the security – or lack of – issues of the Internet of Things as well as the fact that this sort of thing is sold on the premise that technology, and internet technology in particular, will automatically solve all of our problems – even the ones we didn’t know we had. Instead we have heating systems that can be turned on and off from the other side of the planet, played with like toys and them trashed if a bored teenager feels like it. What happens when your home security system is at risk or your networked baby monitor or your car on the way into work or the traffic lights on that really busy corner or that flight you just made or the nuclear power station 5 miles upwind of you? Come on people! Learn before someone, or many someone’s, die. Think like a criminal, think like a terrorist, think like a bored teenager and then fix the problem before someone malicious exploits it!] 

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Just Finished Reading: Night Walker by Donald Hamilton (FP: 1954)

Reluctantly recalled back from the Reserves Naval Lieutenant David Young couldn’t believe his luck when a car pulled over to give him a lift on a cold dark night. Luckier still the driver could drop him almost at the gate of his naval base saving time, money and inconvenience. He should have known that that something was wrong when too much started going too right. Knocked unconscious Young wakes in a hospital bed seemingly recovering from an automobile accident. But cuts, bruises and a slight concussion can’t explain why he had been wearing another man’s suit and the staff called him by another man’s name. It most certainly couldn’t explain how a woman identified as his wife picked him up a day later and drove him home to a house he had never seen before. As his recovery progressed and the concussion faded Young sought the answers to the mystery of his own disappearance. It quickly became apparent that his ‘wife’ knew exactly who he was, or actually who he wasn’t, but desperately needed him to play the part. For it transpired that her husband had been accused of being a Communist spy and had fled prosecution by the FBI. His wife, over fond of spending her days in a barely concealing negligee, needed to run too – but only once Young had recovered his strength and could protect her against her husbands ‘business partners’. But where did the fawning Doctor fit in and why was the husband’s girlfriend so insistent on uncovering Young’s real identity? 

This was a reasonable foray into the American 50’s paranoia concerning the Communist plot and was full of mysterious meetings, signals, double meanings, secret codes and much besides. The object of everyone’s fascination is never explained but it never really needs to be. It’s important, it’s secret and the Communists want it. The plot, such as it is, is over convoluted and at times rather silly. The main character Young is pretty much an idiot before, during and after his apparent concussion, Elizabeth Wilson (the wife) is even worse without a saving grace to her name. The only character of note is the ‘girlfriend’, a tomboy like navy brat both full of herself and out of her depth. Not only was she much better ‘drawn’ than the others she actually seemed to have a life of her own rather merely existing to move the plot along at the appropriate moments. So, not exactly the best Noir thriller I’ve ever read but not the worst either by a long way. Reasonable for a read over a wet weekend.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Maybe they don't allow reading inside......?

Just Finished Reading: The General Strike by Margaret Morris (FP: 1976)

May 1926. With Government subsidies about to come to an end and a Miner’s strike in the offing something just had to give. Either the Miners would accept a pay cut and, in humiliation, return to work or the Mine owners would capitulate and agree to pay a living wage which would cut into their profits. The idea that investment in new machinery and new work practices would improve efficiency and therefore, eventually, profits was dismissed as a pipedream. The miners would just have to be paid less and work longer hours and be damned grateful they had a job at all. Immovable object meet irresistible force. With nine months to run the subsidy allowed the Tory Government of the day and the leaders of industry (often the same people or close friends) had time to prepare stockpiles and contingency plans. The Unions and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) who held them together distrusted each other and far fewer and far less detailed plans were drawn up when the inevitable conflict between Capital and Labour came to a head. So, when the subsidy lapsed, the miners refused to accept the cuts and the Mine owners locked them out it was up to the TUC to back the Miners in their strike effort. Many is the unions saw their support as a natural defensive response and were eager to come out in sympathy. Some indeed, individuals, factories or towns spontaneously came out in support of the Miners struggle and had to be told to go back. But other unions – the heavy hitters in power generation, railways and heavy industry already had their orders, downed tools and walked out. On Tuesday 4th May almost 2 million workers where idle and more had voted to come out too. In the early days of the General Strike far more energy was expended in restraining the strike from growing than in keeping men (it was mostly men) out. Naturally the Governments contingency plans went into effect. Key points of the economy where secured by the Army and Navy. Thousands of volunteers drove buses, unloaded ships (under armed guard) and provided other hard pressed services.

No one really knew what would happen next. Was this the first stage in a Communist revolution? Some parts of the far-left certainly thought or hoped so. But for the most part it was seen as a political strike in defence of the Working Class rather than any attempt to overthrow a government no matter their attitude to Labour in general. Of course some of the more extreme elements in government, Winston Churchill in particular, wanted tanks on the streets and to some extent he got it – along with Fascist bully boys paid as ‘Special constables’ to cause trouble and break picket lines. But eventually, after a rather shaky start, the unions got their act together and became a more co-ordinated organisation which kept food moving, strikers paid, and everyone kept busy making the Strike as effective as possible and with any violence kept to the absolute minimum. Then, in the second week, a day after the next batch of strikers walked out the TUC called the strike off and ordered everyone back to work. Initially thinking that they had won a great victory a cheer went up. Only on realising that nothing had in fact been achieved did disbelief turn into dismay and anger. Just as things were getting into their stride the TUC had thrown in the towel and had abandoned the Miners to their fate. The Strike had lasted 9 days and the like of it would never be seen again.

This was another of those events in British history where I knew the event had happened but I had little idea of the background or the details. I certainly know a LOT more now thanks to this highly detailed study of the General Strike. A good part of my motivation on seeking this out was my self-labelling as a Socialist. If I’m going to call myself as such and identify as such then I’d damned well understand what it is I’m supposed to believe in and know my way around both Labour and Union history. This book is a significant step in that direction and, not surprisingly, after reading of the suffering of the labouring classes at the time my politics has continued its steady drift to the Left. There’s much more to come from this rich well of Socialist thought and action and I have some reading already set up, not only in the R4 category but also in (straight) Politics, Biography and history. I definitely intend to become a well-educated and well-read Socialist in good Working Class fashion. Recommended for anyone interested in such things as well as those who like to find out more about a very odd, and very short, slice of English political history.     

Sunday, December 10, 2017